Why I won’t let my students cite Wikipedia, and why you might

Wikipedia only works in practice. In theory, it’s a total disaster.
-Sue Gardner, Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation.

I love Wikipedia. I love the theory of it (sorry Sue), I love the way it’s been implemented. I think it’s one of the great works of the modern world. I use it. I encourage my students to use it. But I won’t let them cite it as a source on a paper.

Let’s get one thing out of the way — it’s not because Wikipedia is an inaccurate source. The one general study I am aware of showed that the numbers of errors per article was on par with a printed encyclopedia.* In fact, since Wikipedia entries tend to be longer than encyclopedia entries (electrons are cheap, paper is molecules, and molecules are expensive), Wikipedia entries are more accurate, on an errors-per-word basis.

It’s not even because “anybody” can edit an entry. In a paper encyclopedia, anybody the editors choose can edit an entry. This caused a certain amount of embarrassment (speaking from memory here, details hazy) back in the mid-1970’s, when The Economist pointed out the incongruity of one of the paper-pedias having a (I think) retired communist parliamentarian from Czechoslovakia write their entry on the history of modern Czechoslovakia – passing over the little incident in 1968 where it was invaded by 200,000 troops and 2,000 tanks belonging to its Warsaw Pact allies.

More recently, the prestigious Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World misstated the extent of recession of Greenland ice and snow cover.

What I tell my students is that the more political** a topic is, the more money and power depend upon people’s opinions of the topic, the more subject that topic is to having someone with an agenda trying to modify it. The modifications don’t even have to be inaccurate, witness the recent Fox News fair and balanced decision to stop using the term “public option” about a Democratic initiative, and call it the “government option” instead.

No, I won’t let them cite Wikipedia for the same reason I won’t let them cite a paper-pedia — at college level, that kind of source is inappropriate. This is what I tell mine:

As students move up the education chain, we expect them to use sources that are closer to the original data, and be able to evaluate differing claims and arguments.

a. In grade school, “your mom” was an acceptable source. Moms know everything.
b. In high school, the encyclopedia (and Wikipedia, if their teachers have any sense) should be acceptable, at least for some of the references. These contain general purpose/overview articles, written by people who understand the topic, for people who are encountering it for the first time. Presumably, students are expected to seek out some of the more accessible of the specialized works on their topic.
d. For graduate work, students are expected to consult academic journals reporting on original work, written by the people who did the work. They are becoming working experts in the field, and so should be able to read and evaluate the literature.
e. Finally, for the Ph.D., they do the original work themselves, and write it up. They are now one of the original contributors to the field.

Where’s c.? What about undergrad work? Well, when you are doing your undergrad work, you are making a transition, from being dependent on predigested pabulum to chewing on more substantive fare. We don’t expect you to plunge into some densely written academic paper, but we would be happy if you tried. In the undergrad world (at least in Business and MIS) you should be looking mostly at the discipline-specific press, usually published by the associated society. The IEEE publishes lots of really dense journals titled “Transactions on X”. They also publish “IEEE Computer,” and “Spectrum,” both very readable. ACM publishes “Communications of the ACM,” a little less accessable but equally useful, if you put your mind to it. For the latest information, the trade press is your best source — an article on LANs in Network World is better than one from the Spokesman Review, although both may be slanted. There’s probably a dozen publications like Network World out there, and they all are available for free on line.

As for websites, there are a lot of ‘content farms’ out there, sites that pay people by the article to write short descriptions of things that are of general interest. The information content doesn’t have to be very high, and nobody’s spending too much time checking the quality. Sites like Ask, and eHow (and others in the Demand Media empire). They make their money via advertising that rides along on the banners. These are far worse than Wikipedia could ever be. Avoid them.

There are also a lot of good topic-specific websites out there. They are usually maintained by experts in the field, often as marketing devices for their services. While they obviously have a point of view, their popularity (and their authors employment prospects) depends on them producing usable content. Of course, these folks are not much different from the ‘just anybody’s who edit the wiki. Before you trust them, look at their About page. Look at their Facebook or Twitter pages. Remember that what’s important is not how many people they follow (if it’s more than a hundred, be careful), but how many people follow them.

This isn’t to say that there’s no place for it in a college classroom. Here is a good example of how it can be used.

* There’s a really recent study on a specific topic, cancer, that shows that Wikipedia is as accurate as peer-reviewed, payed-editor websites for cancer patients, but it’s just not as readable.

** Actually, a new study shows that Wikipedia remains remarkably accurate, even in areas thought to be subject to bias. Specifically, it is accurate in portraying the biographic details of politicians running for governor of the various states. Where the greatest number of inaccuracies were found was in the place you wouldn’t expect them, in articles on obscure topics. Evidently, many eyes do make all bugs shallow.

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7 Responses to “Why I won’t let my students cite Wikipedia, and why you might”

  1. Kurt Says:

    Steve, articles like this are worth sharing with a larger audience. As distasteful as it might be, consider adding some sort of social media sharing plugin to your WP install, allowing readers to distribute via the popular (or even lesser known) mediums, including Facebook and Twitter. I often don’t have time to offer anything more than an ill thought comment and thus prefer to say nothing at all, but I’d be more than willing to punch an icon and help launch it to my friends (who can tell their friends, etc.) I’m not fond of the trivial aspects of social media, so it’s great to have an excuse to share something worth a conversation.

  2. Kurt Says:

    Ah, just saw the itty bitty Like button. Get a plugin with buttons for all the forms, including e-mail. There’s even one that creates a printable version (after a very long Javascript-driven process.)

  3. Kurt Says:

    Also, that damn plugin here requires a WP login, restricting it even more. I have one, but don’t want to login to share something.

  4. Kurt Says:

    I shared this on Facebook. To share on Twitter is to Tweet. To share on Facebook is to…Fib?

  5. Wikipedia passes another test « FoundOnWeb Says:

    […] passes another test By FoundOnWeb In my original post on Wikipedia, I mentioned the study that showed it to be at least as accurate as a paper-pedia. Now, a new study […]

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